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No Room for Delicate Ears

A case before the California Supreme Court is challenging one of TV's most sacred unwritten rules: What's said in the "writers' room" stays there. Amaani Lyle, a former writers' assistant for "Friends," sued the show's producer, Warner Bros., for sexual harassment over the raunchy talk and explicit skits she says she witnessed as she typed the writers' ribald ruminations. In the following excerpt from an amicus brief filed by the Writers Guild of America, general counsel Marshall M. Goldberg defends the "creative imperatives" of comedy writing and takes the court inside the sanctum sanctorum where he worked for 24 years on such series as "The Bob Newhart Show" and "It's Garry Shandling's Show." Full disclosure: The Times also plans to file an amicus brief defending journalists' ability to discuss explicit material in the course of editing.

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The task of filling 50, 120 or 300 blank pages in an entertaining, insightful, unexpected and humorous way is among the most daunting in the creative arts, and the process for accomplishing that task is intensely personal, often eccentric. Before they could start writing, the staff of "The Bob Newhart Show" would order dinner before 10 in the morning; the writers on "It's Garry Shandling's Show" would have to stay up all night for two days' running to finish their work. "You're trying to get yourself into a zone, and you'll do anything to get there," says John Wells, executive producer of "ER," "West Wing" and "Third Watch." "It wasn't just mental illness that made Van Gogh rip off his ear; creating is frustrating, it's hard…. "

The personality of a room varies from show to show, but the essential dynamic is what Wells … likens to "jazz improvisation. One idea leads to another. There is a rhythm to the room. Anyone who has ever been around a campfire knows how it can escalate. With my son it's about excrement, with adults it's about sex."

Group writing has certain advantages over individual writing. It's more immediate: You find out right away if an idea is funny. It's more probing: Left on their own, many writers will edit themselves to the point where some good ideas never see the light of day. And of course, it's more productive: Six or eight writers can turn out more pages and stories than a single writer. But group writing has an element not present in individual writing: social terror. Imagine suggesting a joke to your professional peers and no one laughs. Or imagine sharing your most embarrassing moment as a spouse or a child with a group of relative strangers. Most people would avoid that kind of vulnerability at all costs, yet television writers are expected to embrace it every day.

Group writing requires an atmosphere of complete trust. Writers must feel not only that it's all right to fail, but also that they can share their most private and darkest thoughts without concern for ridicule or embarrassment or legal accountability. "No one can work in fear of ridicule," says Norman Lear, creator of "All in the Family," "Maude" and "Sanford and Son." "The more people open their veins, the better your scripts will be. Ideas are like a crowd in a room with one door and limited oxygen. You have to find a way to get them all out, or some will die…."

Because the chemistry in a writing room is so delicate, the unwritten rule in television writing is "no outsiders in the room." [Producer Steven] Bochco won't allow anyone other than a writer in the room — not even a typist. "I'm unpopular with the Writers Guild because I won't even take on a Guild trainee. What goes on in that room is, for me, as privileged as any conversation between a husband and wife, or a therapist and patient. A certain level of intimacy is required to do the work at its best, and so there is an implicit contract among the writers: What is said in the room, stays in the room…." Ultimately, nothing is off-limits to a creative comedic mind, be it a bigot, a black junkman, or masturbation.

In her brief, Appellant tries to erect a wall between process and product, arguing, in effect, for a higher legal standard for the final product (which would receive strong 1st Amendment protection) than the process for getting there (which would, in Appellant's view, receive less protection).

She gives by way of example the "Friends" writers drawing and showing ribald sketches, and asks how that could possibly be necessary to a "Friends" episode. Yet, according to Pang-Ni Landrum, a writer and co-producer on "Malcolm in the Middle," that is precisely what happened all the time at "Malcolm," one of TV's most popular comedies.

One of the writers, a talented artist, would come in with a drawing you would expect in a sixth-grade boys' locker room, of a penis going into a politician's mouth or a pile of feces under a straining weightlifter. It's sophomoric and scatological and stupid, and the entire staff would look forward to it because it put them in a completely silly frame of mind. Ms. Landrum says the pictures were "pretty damn funny. Everyone who took a look at them would burst out laughing…."

An outsider might consider the drawings vulgar — even the writers might consider them vulgar — but vulgarity is not the issue; the issue is writing a quality script, under highly competitive and pressurized conditions. The writers on "Malcolm in the Middle" thought of those drawings as a catalyst to creativity, and anything that can help generate 11 hours of quality product was very welcomed indeed.

Lear puts it this way: "There were things we said we would never print…. That's what it takes to make a great show: smart people sitting in a room, going wherever they want."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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